The Problem of May Day's Noncreative Destruction

Talk of Burning Down Seattle's Juvenile Detention Center Is Wrongheaded and Counterproductive

The Problem of May Day's Noncreative Destruction

Ansel Herz

THIS IS WHAT MAY DAY SHOULD LOOK LIKE Last year’s El Comite march.

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What is the meaning of a series of posters, one depicting a hefty-looking rock, another a hooded figure with a backpack holding a pipe, and a third the face of a deer with large antlers and empty eyes? Several weeks ahead of this year's May Day events in Seattle, those images were published at, a riddle for viewers to decipher and a fitting prelude to a day that has become known for its complex mix of agendas. In recent years, this city's May Day has been about immigrant-rights marchers filling the avenues of downtown, loudly seeking government action to right wrongs against a vulnerable minority and, at the same time, about much smaller groups of young people wanting to smash capitalism and the state altogether. It's a lot to cram into one day.

The location of the "Anti-Capitalist March" being promoted by the posters on the anarchist website: the King County Juvenile Detention Center, set on a large block of land in the Central District. The time: 6:30 p.m. This signaled the possibility of something a little different from years past, when clashes between anarchists and police erupted downtown, overshadowing the immigrant-rights marches earlier in the day. And yet the symbolism of the rock-and-pipe-wielding figure seemed familiar and clear: expect confrontation and possibly property destruction. (The symbolism of the deer was less clear—revolution by antler?) Intricately drawn posters on telephone poles surrounding the detention center offered another clue and a more explicit message: "Warm our hearts/Burn the Juvi down."

Would anyone really attempt to attack the juvenile detention center or burn it down? That seemed unlikely as of press time, and the creators of a Facebook page for the event did not respond to a request for comment. (For May Day updates, check Slog, The Stranger's blog.) But there seemed to be a good possibility of skirmishes with the police, who arrested anarchists involved in past May Day scrums at a January demonstration outside the facility. A spokesperson for the King County Facilities Management Division, which is overseeing a voter-approved project to tear down the dilapidated detention center and replace it with a brand-new one, told me there would be extra security officers posted inside as a precaution.

* * *

Far less mysterious, and therefore more predictable, and therefore, to some, less exciting: the annual march for immigrants and workers organized by El Comite. It reliably brings out thousands of people in a colorful assembly of workers and immigrant-rights activists, a reminder that there are many urgent reasons to protest, including the need for immigration reform, stopping unjust deportations, and the inhumane, privately run immigrant prison in Tacoma. But of course for many, the list goes on: foreclosures, rising rents, global warming. And El Comite welcomes other voices in its procession; anarchists will be there, including organizers from Seattle Solidarity Network, a highly effective group that takes on wage-stealing bosses and shitty landlords.

The immigrant march always ends at Westlake Park, where, in years past, some anarchist groups have thrown objects or smashed windows while Seattle police have made arrests, used tear gas, and dished out copious amounts of pepper spray to demonstrators and journalists (including, last year, me). Police have indicated they'll use the same tactics this year, and in general the media has found the spectacle irresistible and often treated the El Comite march, though much larger in size, as a nonstory by comparison. And while I'm as sick of ineffective, repetitive marches and rallies as anyone else, last year's march was a huge, morale-boosting gathering of beautiful people. Movements need moments like that, where people feel powerful and secure making their demands, together.

* * *

The prospect of this year's police-versus- anarchist May Day fracas taking place outside the juvenile detention center at least offered the potential of some geographic separation between the differing demands. But the media and the general public have only limited attention spans, and given this, the anticapitalist march begins to seem counterproductive. It also begins to feel myopic and exclusionary when you talk to people like Marcel Purnell. He's a 26-year-old activist who directs Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, and he's been organizing against the construction of a new youth jail for the past two years. Purnell is opposed to a new facility, a position he shares with some anarchists. But when I caught up with him on April 27, he hadn't heard a word from any anarchists about the planned May Day protest. "It seems like a unilateral decision," Purnell, who has sat through plenty of public meetings on the subject of the detention center, told me. "To not even contact organizations that are led by people of color that are trying to shut down the jail... that's not good for the anti-prison movement. Nor is it strategic." (Full disclosure: I live near the detention center and I started volunteering there earlier this year, running weekly soccer sessions for young men locked up inside, who are disproportionately black and Latino.)

"People doing criminal-justice work have to be really intentional about including the voices and desires of those who have an intimate relationship with the people inside the facilities," Purnell continued. He guesses the lack of anarchist outreach has something to do with their culture being, as he put it, "generally white male dominated."

As for the merits of building a new juvenile detention center to replace the current one, King County voters already made that call in 2012, narrowly approving a $210 million tax levy for the project. Several county officials told me the new center is part of a broader long-term effort to make juvenile incarceration rates—which are racially biased, with young black men 4.5 times more likely to be jailed in Seattle—as low as possible. The county has taken significant steps in this direction over the past eight years, steadily reducing the average youth detention population from more than 200 in 1998 to 56 today. The plan is to bring the number of beds down from 210, the current total, to 154 in the new, smaller detention building.

"I'd love for any other urban area to show they've done as much as we have to reduce juvenile crime and jailing," said King County Council member Larry Gossett, who came into politics as an activist against racism and discrimination. Gossett added that he's fine with anyone, including anarchists, exerting pressure on a system that needs to keep on changing. But he's skeptical of the go-alone tactics some anarchists are employing. "It won't move the movement forward," he said. Officials say they're required by state law to have a juvenile detention center, and while the city's menu of alternative programs is necessary and helpful, there are certain offenders who do have to be jailed instead of diverted. In other words, they're not on board with the idea of simply destroying the detention center and calling that success.

Which is not to say that alternative programs, while robust in this city, are without room for improvement. Activists from Washington Incarceration Stops Here, another group agitating against the jail, point out that downtown homeless youth shelter YouthCare struggled last year to remain open because of a budget deficit of just $1.2 million. More broadly, they make an argument that can't be dismissed: Society's priorities are warped, education is underfunded, our prison population is out of hand and racially unjust, and King County can do better by some of its most vulnerable children. "I think the groups, including the anarchists, should continue to keep the pressure on us," said Council Member Gossett. "They have a right to do that. They're not illegitimate." He just thinks the anarchist plan, as he understands it, is "not going to work." He'll be supporting the El Comite march instead.

* * *

Radical social movements, of which the campaign against the juvenile jail is a part, have long been the lifeblood of democracy. But local anarchists who are suggesting violence are out of sync with the spirit of May Day itself, which commemorates the 1887 hanging of four prominent anarchists in Chicago. Days before the hanging, in the first-ever May Day parade, anarchist Albert Parsons, his wife, and his two children led a march of 80,000 people down a Chicago thoroughfare, rallying the city's workers around an easy-to-understand reformist slogan addressing endless workdays: "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!"

You'd have to be nuts to bring your kids to the Seattle anarchists' May Day march at the detention center, given the posters depicting rocks and calling for arson. And amid a nation-leading 15 Now campaign aimed at dramatically raising the minimum wage in Seattle, many (though not all) local anarchists have been conspicuously absent from the wage-hike movement—or openly contemptuous of it. Given all this, calling for a physical assault on the old juvenile detention center is a bizarre and stupid expression of priorities, especially for people who say they're out to critique misguided priorities. If these particular local anarchists are as impassioned about changing the world as their over-the-top rhetoric suggests, they need to step up their game. A smart, tactical May Day protest that's more about creating anew than burning down would be a fantastic start. recommended

May Day March for Workers and Immigrant Rights The march begins at St. Mary’s Church (20th Avenue and South Weller Street) at 3 p.m. on Thursday, May 1, and will end with a rally at Westlake Park downtown.


Comments (32) RSS

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Cool. Now do one on how nonproductive trashing the city after a football win was. Don't forget to include that revelers of the big game caused more damage than last year's May Day protest, and especially don't forget that this year is predicted to be more of the same, ie. still way less damage than the football fans.
Posted by treehugger on April 30, 2014 at 9:34 AM · Report this
Thank you.
Posted by ooppoddoo on April 30, 2014 at 9:44 AM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 3
I love how American's think you have revolutionary change that will make the 1% realize they have to give up their hold on power by peaceful means. I mean it's nearly cute in the level of delusion you must be living in.
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on April 30, 2014 at 10:10 AM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 4
Oh and also what was said at #1
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on April 30, 2014 at 10:11 AM · Report this
Football revelers? Are you referring to the parade for the multimillion dollar tax revenue machine, the Seattle Seahawks?

Sorry, but if there were damages and costs to the parade, they were far outweighed by the tax revenue and general financial impact to the city.

I think we can all agree, football parades are way more desirable than may day riots. Nice try though.
Posted by Petedawg on April 30, 2014 at 11:08 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 6
Change doesn't happen when you Serfs are peaceful even if the black block are jerks

Got 15 now?

Didn't think so
Posted by Will in Seattle on April 30, 2014 at 11:45 AM · Report this
delirian 7
@5: Bullshit. Sports teams are a revenue myth just like casinos. They create tons of low wage jobs (a net loss) while transferring a shitload of money to the rich, often out of state. And those tax revenues never seem to compare with the enormous amount of welfare spent publicly funding their stadiums or caring for their underpaid workers. Here's an easy way to know if an employer is useful: do they create anything of value (airplanes, educated workers, software, etc.) and pay their employees more than those employees would cost taxpayers in benefits? If not, then they aren't helping.
Posted by delirian on April 30, 2014 at 12:19 PM · Report this
Excuse me,but the true name of the First of May is "International Workers' Day". ---- , (A).
Posted by 5th Columnist on April 30, 2014 at 1:28 PM · Report this
Both Cato the Younger and Will in Seattle have hit the red:you don't play nice with demons:the so-called "humans" that are destroying your life-support system - Our Earth - are violent beetards who can only be dealt with in a violent fashion:fight fire with fire! ;D ---
Posted by 5th Columnist on April 30, 2014 at 1:31 PM · Report this
Really?Where the Founding Fathers nothing but a bunch of placard-holding Peaceniks?Thought so . . . .
Posted by 5th Columnist on April 30, 2014 at 1:31 PM · Report this

I) You demonstrate the traditional integrity and knowledgeability that people expect from journalists when you say that "local anarchists who are suggesting violence are out of sync with the spirit of May Day itself, which commemorates the 1887 hanging of four prominent anarchists." You namedrop Albert Parsons, who on the stand defending his life, when asked "So your remedy would be violence?" answered "Remedy? Well, I should like it better if it could be done without violence, but you, gentlemen, and the class you represent, take care that it could not be accomplished otherwise" and concluded "Therefore force will have to decide - or do you know of any other way?"

His wife, Lucy Parsons, was a bit more direct in a speech given in the 1930s: "What I want, is for every greasy, grimy tramp to arm himself with a knife or a gun, and stationing themselves at the doorways of the rich, shoot or stab them as they come out."

Louis Lingg, another one of the Haymarket martyrs, one whom you erase from the four hanged (he committed suicide the day before his scheduled hanging by means of a blasting cap smuggled to him), in his defense against the charges made against him by the state, had this for an alibi for the bombing: He was at home... making bombs.

Anarchists know their history and won't be shamed by your illiterate admonitions concerning same.

II) Nice attempt to play up the "white male anarchist" shibboleth again. We never get tired of hearing that - again erasing the non-male, non-gendered, alternate-gendered, and non-white anarchists. Inserting that this argument through your chosen mouthpiece is much more of an indication of white privilege (white reporter speaks through cherrypicked minorty voice) than any demographic statistics you (fail to) provide. Mainly, it ignores that many and probably most anarchists have been jailed or have intimate connections to those who have been jailed, including in juvenile detention centers. People need to ask permission to act on something that directly affects them?

III) Abolishing prisons, which house more than 2,000,000 people, the most of any country on earth, is a "misplaced priority?" Fuck you. Seriously, if that isn't a "white male" assertion, what is? Fuck you again.
Posted by marie berneri on April 30, 2014 at 2:53 PM · Report this
Burning down any building in protest = One of civilizations oldest bad moves that only cases other bad things to happen.

But something needs to be done to bring to attention the fact that we have a prison industrial complex that has destroyed out civil liberties and re instigated every horrible element of Jim Crow (along with the drug war).

I mean, you know there is a problem when crime consistently goes down, but we put MORE people in jail every year. When every year fewer people offend, but we put more people in jail for less serious crimes.

Something (legal) has to be done. It wont come from politicians. The ones not in the pockets of the Police and Corrections Unions :cough cough McGinn cough Murray: are in the pockets of the corrections firms themselves.

Posted by araucania on April 30, 2014 at 3:56 PM · Report this
Texas10R 13
Ansel, in your article, you write:

"...seeking government action to right wrongs against a vulnerable..."

There is a need for the definite article "the" between the words "right" and "wrongs".
Please alert your copy editor to avoid future clunky, poorly-worded articles, and to preserve the forceful statement of your fine work.
Posted by Texas10R on April 30, 2014 at 4:41 PM · Report this
I think the "anarchists" are a false flag operation of SPOG, by making progressives look like such a bunch of idiots, they "justify" the huge budgets and heavy handed military tactics the police like to use.
Posted by Azzam on April 30, 2014 at 5:39 PM · Report this
Texas10R 15
It's an interesting theory – but one that would require SPOG to have greater strategic thinking than that for which they deserve credit. Some of these a-holes seem to be unable to catch a thief unless that thief were stapled to their metaphorical badge-protected nutsacks – and yet they could mastermind a complicated counterinsurgent conspiracy?

Still, keep up the good work 14; we know they're at least saavy enough to publicly intimidate a journalist on camera, in violation of the Contitution of which they have ALL taken an oath to uphold.
Posted by Texas10R on April 30, 2014 at 6:06 PM · Report this
TCLballardwallymont 16

Right, that's so much more likely than it being a bunch of 15 year old shitheads with nothing better to do.

You should remember to line all your clothes with tinfoil, the hat alone doesn't seem to be working.
Posted by TCLballardwallymont on April 30, 2014 at 8:25 PM · Report this
Marie, thanks for the recycled Lucy Parsons quote. That one's made internet circulation for years. Sadly it makes her unidimensional and effaces her substantial contributions to labor and society. After all, there's always someone greasier and grimier than you that justifiably could kill you, for nothing else but that fact. Kind of a hard loop to escape, and a shitty quote to choose if you are trying to make some sort of point outside of feeling poetically violent. In fact, anarchists are almost always "poetic". But also great at denying that humans are pretty fucked up animals which may require enforced rules now and then. So sure, build your Christiana, but don't think twice when it turns into a fucked up mess and you need to call the cops to help clean it out.

For now, glad everything's black and white in your "fuck you" world. See you tomorrow.
Posted by CandiedCorpse on April 30, 2014 at 9:45 PM · Report this
Posted by j2patter on April 30, 2014 at 11:24 PM · Report this
love watching some cac anarchists get rocked. gonna be down there with the boys watching them demons get plugged.

crack crack crackers
Posted by dasneek on May 1, 2014 at 12:53 AM · Report this
20 ironic, that a bunch of anti-gun left nuts, yes like you Will In Seattle, believe violent revolution is the only way for real change.

How the fuck you gonna do that after you have destroyed the 2nd amendment?

Let me know how that revolution goes after you have turned in your weapons - 2nd amendment be damned.

All I see posting on slog are bunch of urban pussies who couldnt fight their way out of a paper bag - now talking all tough about revolution and sticking it to the man. viva che!

LMFAO...what a bunch of losers you all are.
Posted by how does irony taste? on May 1, 2014 at 6:41 AM · Report this
far more effective and valuable than marching:

1. go to the 15 now or vote 15 website.
2. sign up for an action group.
3. take a few afternoon in june to get signatures for the charter amendment.
4. tell all your friends to vote for it this fall.
5. see $15 an hour come into effect, here, in seattle, january 1, 2015.
6. this emboldens progressive movement worldwide stamping seattle as the place where people get stuff done to make society better instead of just marching, just celebrating or just talking.

sure movements need marches. but what they really need is real power. we have legal power to institute $15 an hour as of january 1, so let's get on THAT. every hour spent getting signatures is worth about 100 or 1000 hours of marching in a march that happens every year, that's mainly about immigration and that is prone to disruption by the idiots and agents provacateurs. why march when we can actually use our own legislative power this summer to effect change??
Posted by better action alternatives on May 1, 2014 at 8:32 AM · Report this
Never heard of any damages. Only saw pictures that made fun of Seattle crowds being so law biding that they wouldn't even cross streets against the light.
Link please.
Posted by Senor Guy on May 1, 2014 at 9:09 AM · Report this
Lord Humungus approves of any and all anarchist efforts to Smash The State and Topple The System. Add your labor to this noble cause, fellow marauders!
Posted by Hacksaw on May 1, 2014 at 11:40 AM · Report this
The football fans didn't pretend what they were doing was anything but mindless rioting. Anarchists present themselves as heroes of the left, and therefore warrant criticism.

Posted by Fischbyne on May 1, 2014 at 12:05 PM · Report this
Theodore Gorath 25
Estimates are that the damages done to the pergola thing in Pioneer Square were roughly $25,000.

Hard to get an estimate about May Day because the damage is typically done to private property, but it was estimated that the damage done to store fronts was in the tens of thousands, which would not count the damage done to privately owned cars which were indiscriminately vandalized.

One really should also take into account how much it costs the city to keep patrols and crowd control units there all day, and clean up the mess/prosecute the lawbreakers.

So really the comparision is not even close. Not that it matters in any way.

Posted by Theodore Gorath on May 1, 2014 at 12:07 PM · Report this
@8 The true name of May Day is Beltane or Walpurgis night, dummy. Go ask your Druid friends in the drum circle.
Posted by M. Wells on May 1, 2014 at 4:24 PM · Report this
I am so sorry your delicate sensibilities were offended. Are you quite finished clutching your pearls yet?

Really, now: any old Joe can register a username on and post stuff there. If you didn't like the selection of the posters already there, you were (and are) free to post a set of your own creating.

Assuming, of course, you're even interested in participating in the struggle for liberation, instead of (to pick a metaphor) simply throwing rocks at the efforts of those who are.
Posted by Blackcap on May 1, 2014 at 11:38 PM · Report this
Jiff 28
Re, "I mean, you know there is a problem when crime consistently goes down, but we put MORE people in jail every year."

Maybe crime is down because the people that commit crimes are being put in jail.

Why all the resentment of rich people? Do anti-capitalists want everyone to be poor?
Posted by Jiff on May 2, 2014 at 10:02 AM · Report this
#20 wins it all.
Posted by seatownr on May 2, 2014 at 10:25 AM · Report this
Supporting Seattle's coffeehouses and bookstores, the citizens will continue in the city's tradition of having productive places for the youth to go.
Posted by sseattle on May 3, 2014 at 1:59 PM · Report this
@M. Wells:You know damn well when the word "May Day" is used by the press,they are not referring to Beltane,but the the IWD. --- .You troll.
Posted by 5th Columnist on May 4, 2014 at 4:37 PM · Report this
This article seems oddly oblivious of the core goal of Anarchism, which is the abolition of the state. This *includes* even the most radical, progressive, liberal wet-dream of representative democracy. You might disagree with that goal, but talking about what city council members think - or about what political reforms are in vogue, or about how Seattle is not as bad as some other cities - is missing the point.

Anarchism is not a movement within American politics, whose proponents are somehow just clueless about "how to get things done". It's an ideology which sees the system *itself* as fundamentally broken. Again, you can disagree with that, but can't just plaster your vision of progress over the one explicitly outlined by someone else's ideology and then act all confused and disappointed about their tactics. Well, I guess you can, but it's philosophically ignorant.
Posted by shephard on May 6, 2014 at 8:27 PM · Report this

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